More Than Just Listening

March 01, 2015 in Inside SWS

“You just don’t understand!” my daughter wailed. “You don’t know how much soccer means to me. Can’t you just listen for once?”

My youngest daughter lives for soccer. She started kicking the ball around with her older siblings as soon as she could walk, and has never stopped. Indoor and outdoor teams, school and club teams – she does it all. Now with high school looming, she has to choose whether to play with her classmates at school or with a premier team that travels hundreds of miles for games. For me, there are a dozen reasons why being part of her high school team would be an invaluable experience. Every time we try to have the conversation, we end up in the same place. She is in tears feeling misunderstood and ignored, when all I have tried to do is point out why, in my view, her choice is not the best one.

Psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good! When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”

What Rogers is describing is empathy – the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. When practicing empathy, we are non-judgmental and able to communicate our understanding of the other person’s feelings. Developing these skills requires an open mind, a commitment to try, and practice. Lots and lots of practice.

As you might imagine, I have engaged in many conversations with parents and faculty in the past few weeks about the issue of immunization. Discussions have covered the medical, scientific, spiritual, political and moral gamuts, and at times been fraught with anger, fear, frustration and anxiety. Well-intended advice has ranged from “take a stand and do something” to “just wait a few weeks and it will go away.” A common refrain has been “I don’t envy you – I wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot pole.”

In my February 11 message to our community, I noted that we would form a work group of parents, faculty, staff and trustees to consider the many dimensions of the immunization issue and the potential impact on the school. A number of people have asked what this group will do. Formulating the question(s) we should be asking is actually the first step. In his book, The Answer to How is Yes, Peter Block suggests we consider the following when working to build sustainable human systems:

  • Understand that the task is to shift the demand for the right answer to the search for the right question. For anything that matters, the answer is in the question.
  • Recognize that the struggle is the solution. Serious dialogue about the question brings its resolution.
  • See the reality in the current situation. See the suffering and the costs of what exists now.
  • Treat the conversation as an action. It is an act of freedom to struggle with questions of identity, what matters, who we are.
  • Raise the question of what do we want to create together. Acting on what matters is a question for our institutions as well as for ourselves.

As I shared at our faculty meeting yesterday, the dialogue I hope we will begin is not about advocating, disproving, convincing or pressuring. Rather, it is an opportunity to practice empathy and deepen our understanding of how others view the world. Might this result in new or changed perspectives for some? Possibly. But that is not the impetus behind convening this group, and bringing this conversation to the larger community. Creating a safe forum for a thoughtful exchange of information and ideas is the driving force here.

Don’t get me wrong – we have a serious issue before us, with potentially alarming and significant consequences for families and for the school. Should we have a single case of measles in our community, a quarter of our students would be out of school for at least three weeks, and likely longer. Working parents would be hard hit, with limited childcare options available to them. An outbreak would likely be front-page news across the country. So this conversation I am proposing is not simply an exercise in practicing good listening. It is one we need to have in order to, as a community, take responsibility for our present circumstances and act on what matters most to us.

If I had my druthers, this issue is not the one I would choose for us to cut our teeth on in terms of honing our communication skills. Surely there is an easier conversation for starters. However, it is the one before us at this moment and it demands our attention.

Circling back to where I began, I met with my daughter’s elite soccer club coach this week to try and understand why this means so much to her. He described the young woman he sees on the field – passionate, hard working, a tenacious yet compassionate leader – and tears welled up in my eyes. In all our arguments at the kitchen table, I had failed to get past what I wanted for her and really step into her world. I needed her coach to put me on that field with her, and feel her enthusiasm for this sport. I left that meeting with a far different perspective and much deeper appreciation for what nourishes my daughter. I had not only listened, but also truly heard. And what a difference that makes.


Published in the Connection from 2.27.2015